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What Confederate Symbols Really Mean Today

by @ 12:39 pm on April 11, 2010. Filed under History


Newsweek’s Jon Mecham explains in today’s New York Times what Confederate symbolism really means today:

Since Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Confederate symbols have tended to be more about white resistance to black advances than about commemoration. In the 1880s and 1890s, after fighting Reconstruction with terrorism and after the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act, states began to legalize segregation. For white supremacists, iconography of the “Lost Cause” was central to their fight; Mississippi even grafted the Confederate battle emblem onto its state flag.

But after the Supreme Court allowed segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Jim Crow was basically secure. There was less need to rally the troops, and Confederate imagery became associated with the most extreme of the extreme: the Ku Klux Klan.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, the rebel flag and other Confederate symbolism resurfaced as the civil rights movement spread. In 1948, supporters of Strom Thurmond’s pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket waved the battle flag at campaign stops.

Then came the school-integration rulings of the 1950s. Georgia changed its flag to include the battle emblem in 1956, and South Carolina hoisted the colors over its Capitol in 1962 as part of its centennial celebrations of the war.

As the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter approaches in 2011, the enduring problem for neo-Confederates endures: anyone who seeks an Edenic Southern past in which the war was principally about states’ rights and not slavery is searching in vain, for the Confederacy and slavery are inextricably and forever linked.

Exactly, and it was that inexorable link that Governor McDonnell embarrassingly forgot to even mention in his initial proclamation marking Confederate History Month in Virginia.

This is not an issue that’s going away. It’s been almost 150 years since the Civil War ended and Confederate symbols have not gone away despite the fact that more and more people are realizing that the regime they represent is not some noble Lost Cause, but an illegitimate nation created to deny any rights to an entire race. I would like to think that the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial would lead people in the South to finally realize the truth about the regime they purport to celebrate, but I’m not optimistic.

Perhaps what we need is Ed Kilgore’s suggestion for a Neo-Confederate History Month:

[A]s a white southerner old enough to remember the final years of Jim Crow, when every month was Confederate History Month, I have a better idea for McDonnell: Let’s have a Neo-Confederate History Month that draws attention to the endless commemorations of the Lost Cause that have wrought nearly as much damage as the Confederacy itself.

It would be immensely useful for Virginians and southerners generally to spend some time reflecting on the century or so of grinding poverty and cultural isolation that fidelity to the Romance in Gray earned for the entire region, regardless of race. Few Americans from any region know much about the actual history of Reconstruction, capped by the shameful consignment of African Americans to the tender mercies of their former masters, or about the systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens (and in some places, particularly McDonnell’s Virginia, of poor whites) that immediately followed.

A Neo-Confederate History Month could be thoroughly bipartisan. Republicans could enjoy greater exposure to the racism of such progressive icons as William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, not to mention Democratic New Deal crusaders in the South like Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo. The capture of the political machinery of Republican and Democratic parties in a number of states, inside and beyond the South, by the revived Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, would be an interesting subject for further study as well.

Most of all, a Neo-Confederate History Month could remind us of the last great effusion of enthusiasm for Davis and Lee and Jackson and all the other avatars of the Confederacy: the white southern fight to maintain racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when “Dixie” was played as often as the national anthem at most white high school football games in the South; when Confederate regalia were attached to state flags across the region; and when the vast constitutional and political edifice of pre-secession agitprop was brought back to life in the last-ditch effort to make the Second Reconstruction fail like the first.

Sounds like a good idea.

6 Responses to “What Confederate Symbols Really Mean Today”

  1. There’s a discussion going on at about, mostly, what a piss-poor excuse for an article this is.
    Here’s yr URL:

  2. Kilo says:

    I love it when someone tells me what I’m thinking and the reasons I believe what I believe, etc. Lowell Feld and Ben Tribbett do that too.

  3. Julie Anne Burton says:

    If one voluntarily joins an organization, doesn’t one have the right to leave that organization? If we are a republic of federated states, why can’t a state leave if it feels that the republic is no longer serving its best interests? It just doesn’t make sense otherwise. If a state cannot leave, then it is being held in place by coersion, and has, effectively, been occupied by a hostile group.

  4. Shea F. Kenny says:

    Julie, when one joins an “organization”, it has an obligation to live up to the standards set by the organization.

    The south did not have the right to enslave human beings and subsequently deprive human beings from their natural born rights.

    If southerners wanted blacks to come to America and provide labor, it had better treat them as Kings and Queens. They tried to get away with treating them as they pleased, but it was regarded as such a disgusting and inhuman practice, that all means of eradication have been used.

    Even if southern states did secede from the union, there would still be problems of people trying to free blacks from the chains of slavery by border states, and having to agree to slave states having the “right” to collect runaway slaves and so forth. There was no other solution than to eradicate the practice, in practical terms and certainly in moral terms.

    The south prides it’s self on honor and integrity, yet is blind to any notion of the disgrace and dishonor they brought with each and every stolen soul from Africa.

    The south is obviously chock full of sickening amoral morons and if it were up to me, I’d refuse them representation in Congress until it once and for all renounced it’s white supremacist fallacy and idiocy….


  5. Dillon Pratt says:

    What are you talking about? This article is a disgrace. Don’t ever tell me that because I choose to honor my ancestors that I am a racist. You people will never understand

  6. Mark DixieLion Beaudoin says:

    Whats the bitchiness all about anyway!Why do white folks deffend black poeple so much for!Think they cant deffend themselves.Why embrace a cause wich does not concern you any ways…Never seen black thugs intimidate our white children!where do u live dangit! Dont be blind, if blacks had been the masters think they would have freed us, or been any less racist than we are.Your attitude is wrong, spit on your southern brothers and kiss your slaves asses!Let your guard down when people who wants revenge are in front of you is the best dang way to get killed.Welcome to reality, blacks want revenge because thats exactly what we would do in their place, thats human nature!NOBODY CAN FIGHT HUMAN NATURE!!!If u think the south is wrong than you are the deceived part of America!!!LONG LIVE THE CONFEDERACY AND YAKEES BEWARE!!!The gangrene starts from inside…

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